Shimrit Lee

Kamal Aljafari remembers when Jaffa was transformed into civil war-torn Beirut. Under the direction of Menachem Golan, the production team of The Delta Force (1986) created urban mayhem, arranging for the explosion of real buildings in the staging of a fictional battle. Aljafari recalls standing on the side of the road with a group of other children, eagerly awaiting a glimpse of Chuck Norris racing by in a van with the name of their school, “St. Joseph,” printed on the door. Years later, while flipping through television channels in a hotel room in London, Aljafari was shocked to recognize this scene. He sat on the bed mesmerized, not by the action shots but by the background: a clear documentation of the Jaffa of his childhood, a city which has since been destroyed, renovated, gentrified and rebuilt beyond recognition. 

Aljafari’s latest film Recollection is composed entirely of footage from Israeli and American fiction features shot in Jaffa from the 1960s to the 1990s, primarily of the so-called bourekas genre that dramatized tense romantic relationships between Mizrahi male “thugs” and Ashkenazi female elites. Jaffa provided the perfect setting to construct new Israeli narratives on top of emptied Palestinian ruins. As Aljafari explains, Palestinians were effectively “uprooted in reality and in fiction.” In Recollection, Aljafari removes the Israeli actors to give the stage to the people who appear by chance in the background of these shots, including both Palestinians and Iraqi Jews who were settled in the city, enacting what he describes as “cinematic justice.” 

Aljafari was born in neighboring Ramle in 1972 and later emigrated to Germany to attend film school. His previous films include The Roof (2006), which follows him on a return visit to the homes of his parents and grandmother in Palestine, and Port of Memory (2009), which traces the eviction of his mother’s family from their home in Ajami. Aljafari’s dark humor and silent communication style liken his work to that of Palestinian filmmakers Elia Sulieman and Michel Khleifi. 

Unlike his previous films, Recollection has no central protagonist. Aljafari moves through the found-footage, creating the illusion of a dreamer sleep-walking through the city with a handheld camera. While Aljafari sometimes describes this unseen cameraman as himself, each excavated memory is shared, belonging to his grandfather, his mother, his neighbors, and others who cannot return. Each footstep holds a certain urgency; as Aljafari explains, “I walk everywhere, sometimes hesitant and sometimes lost. I wander through the city; I wander through the memories. I film everything I encounter because I know it no longer exists. I return to a lost time.”

Frame from Recollection, Kamal Aljafari, 2015

Frame from Recollection, Kamal Aljafari, 2015
In the first minute of the film, the viewer is introduced to Aljafari’s methods and the disappearing act that follows. David Ben-Gurion walks through an orchard and quickly fades into nothing. A group of actors in the 1966 Israeli musical comedy Kazablan evaporate from the foreground as the camera zooms in on a woman watching the scene for a nearby window. Speaking with scholar Hamid Dabashi as part of Columbia University’s Palestine Cuts initiative, Aljafari described the irony that he chose to play with: “It’s quite amazing that these films wanted to exclude and erase the Palestinian history of Jaffa; the Palestinians simply didn’t exist. At the same time, [these films] documented them!” 

Aljafari describes the editing process as an obsessive, almost magical project of compiling a picture album, of re-making his memories through a found archive. It was a sort of forensics - the meticulous reconstruction of an environment that no longer exists. He often had to complete parts of buildings or roads that had been blocked out by the actors he removed, those he calls “cinematic occupiers.” In some cases, Aljafari has drastically altered the scene, in one case digitally repainting an interior wall from brown to blue according to his memory of these homes. At other times, he allows the Israeli actors to stay because editing them out completely would have been too difficult. One scene shows former actor Uri Zohar beating an effigy in a black and white alleyway. In another, Israeli singer Ofra Haza walks down a stairwell in footage from West Side Girl (1979). Instead of erasing her, Aljafari intervenes by flipping the scene upside down.

The film contains no narrative structure, instead taking the form of a repetitive and rhythmic poem. Time slows down as the camera lingers lovingly over the textures of a wall, a single tile on the ground, and a detail on a stone windowsill that resembles a human nose. At other points, the camera goes berserk, rapidly scanning the frothing waves of the sea or racing down an empty highway. Viewers witness the construction of massive high-rise apartments and the chaotic production line of an orange factory - moments in which the dreamer enters a nightmare. However, despite the rich poetic nature of each dream sequence, the significance of Aljafari’s methods and theoretical logic may be lost on a viewer who is unfamiliar with his intentions. The concept of the film is best understood (and enjoyed) when the filmmaker himself is present. 

While all of the footage in Recollection was taken and pieced together from other people’s films, the sound is the only aspect that Aljafari recorded himself. In an interview with Nathalie Handel for Guernica Magazine, he describes his method of placing special microphones inside interior walls and deep into the ocean where many of Jaffa’s ruins were discarded by the municipality of Tel Aviv: “It was important for me to listen to the sound of the walls, life buried beneath, inside the sea. We recorded at night because that’s when places free themselves from the present, and its occupiers.”

Frame from Recollection, Kamal Aljafari, 2015

Frame from Recollection, Kamal Aljafari, 2015

In one sense, the title of the film refers to the act of remembering itself, an act that is fragmented, blurry, and repetitious. It is the act of spending time with a thought, which is exactly what Aljafari’s camera does. It sits and stares, contemplating the sound of the waves or the texture of a single archway. In another sense, recollection is an act of collecting again and again. Aljafari is gathering and reclaiming the very real phantoms that haunt other people’s fictional narratives. He recounts that one night while he was watching a boureka film he noticed his uncle strolling around in the background, presenting him with the only moving image he has of his now-deceased relative. The camera returns to this shot again and again as the dreamer experiences a flashback. 

The film repeatedly returns to the same still spaces: an image of a blue car parked in an alleyway, four steps up to a cement house, bulldozers at the port. Aljafari explains how he created postcards of each of these shots and shared them with his friends and relatives from Jaffa. Stories began to emerge and the grainy people in the background were given names and histories. These anecdotes appear silently at the end of the film, as rolling text on the screen:

The street corner where the blue car is parked
faces my grandmother’s house. 
The car was a taxi owned by Ahmad Farraj
my grandmother’s relative.
There is a stone on the corner
As a child I liked to lean against it. 
It is where my grandfather sat
with his small transistor radio in summer afternoons.
Above us sand martins would fly in and out
through the windows on the second floor
of the empty house. 

Aljafari explains that the taxi driver Farraj was married to Margo, a Kurdish Jew from Iraq. They had two children, a son living in Tel Aviv and a daughter living in Jaffa. He identifies the home with the cement stairs as belonging to his mother and lists off the names of her neighbors: Sasien, Rantisi, Qubti, Ramam, El Ashwar. In this way, the film bears witness to the past through a project of shared ethnography, an experiment in which visual data is reproductive of oral histories. Through the sharing of found footage, Aljafari collects names, anecdotes, and testimony. The virtual museumization of the city in time and space raises questions about the potential of cinema not only for historical documentation but also for legal purposes, such as in indigenous claims to territorial jurisdiction.

Frame from Recollection, Kamal Aljafari, 2015 showing Aljafari’s uncle appearing in a boureka film

Frame from Recollection, Kamal Aljafari, 2015

A third meaning of the word “recollection” relates to Plato’s concept of anamnesis, the idea that humans possess knowledge from past incarnations, what Ernst Bloch calls a “gigantic déjà vu.”1 The character in the film arrives from the sea, walks along the port, up the stairs to one neighborhood and from there visits Ajami and al-Manshiyya. Aljafari describes this journey as the dream of all Palestinians, “to arrive from the sea and not the airport to the city, to arrive with no borders.” 

Yet the character’s movement possesses an uncanny echo of other real and imagined pasts. In Zionist mythology, for example, the parentless Sabra emerges spontaneously from nature, as in Moshe Shamir’s 1970 novel With His Own Hands, which introduces the protagonist Elik as being born from the sea. The sequencing of images proceeding from sea to land also recapitulates the perspective of Europeans who arrived in the East from the sea, from the West. As film theorist Ella Shohat explains, this journey happened “geographically (Mediterranean), metaphorically (identifying with Europe), and even linguistically (since yam in Hebrew signifies both sea and west).”2 By tracing these same routes, Aljafari’s dreamer reclaims the mythological movement as his own. 

Similarly, by spotlighting background characters, he challenges European colonial logic that traditionally positioned Palestinian inhabitants as natural extensions of the landscape (poetic, picturesque, sublime, biblical, and above all, passive), as well as Zionism’s profound failure or refusal to see such inhabitants at all. At the end of Recollection, Aljafari gathers his characters together in a group, cutting and pasting them from the margins to the center. As he describes, “I wanted these phantoms to walk together, hand in hand, and to sing, and finally declare themselves that they are not phantoms anymore.” 

The crumbling buildings and alleyways that these characters inhabit conjure Walter Benjamin’s thesis on ruins as spaces in which the destructive nature of progress is embodied. The imagery invokes contemporary Aleppo or 1945 Berlin, cities which have been bombed beyond recognition. Yet in Recollection, Jaffa is not merely an objective screen onto which history is projected, but rather a constellation composed of multiple interconnections between past and present, visibility and invisibility. The Jaffa of today has been transformed into a profitable seaside resort for bourgeois Israelis, accelerating the internal displacement of Palestinians that began in 1948. Aljafari has drawn upon cinema as a means of intervention, harnessing its ability to rewind, freeze, re-watch and resuscitate his beloved city, giving destruction a new sense of reversibility. 

1. Michael Landmann, “Talking with Ernst Bloch: Korcula, 1968,” Telos 2 (Fall 1975), p. 178.
2. Ella Shohat, Israeli Cinema: East/West and the Politics of Representation. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1989, 37.

Shimrit Lee is a PhD candidate in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University. Her research concentrates on visual cultures of Israeli militarism with a focus on how modern warfare is imagined, exhibited and commodified in virtual spaces such as international arms exhibitions, cyber and mock urban training grounds, videogames and war apps.